Archivio Storico:- ex Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - Universita' di Bologna Fotogenia 1d - Colorful Metaphors:

Colorful Metaphors:
the Attraction of Color in Early Silent Cinema


by Tom Gunning


Two Roles for Color in Film

Color in cinema generally plays a contradictory role, On the one hand there is the claim, made most explicitly by Bazin's essay "The Myth of Total Cinema," that color plays an essential part in the fulfilling of the ideal of cinema's first inventors: "the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, color and relief." (1) On the other hand, color can also appear in cinema with little reference to reality, as a purely sensuous presence, an element which can even indicate a divergence from reality. While Bazin acknowledged that his ideal of total reproduction of the visual world through cinema took time to be fulfilled due to technological development, this delay simply involved the perfecting of cinema's realistic mission. From the viewpoint of this realist ideal color plays an indexical role in cinema; color belongs to cinema because it exists in our visual world. Seen from this perspective, color in silent film should be approached as an element whose lack was noticed by some of cinema's first commentators, such as Maxim Gorky who complained in 1896 that in the Lumière films the world had been "cruelly punished by being deprived of all the colors of life": "Everything there - the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air - is dipped in monotonous gray. Gray rays of the sun across the gray sky, gray eyes in gray faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen gray. It is not life but its shadow..." (2)

This history of color in silent cinema would privilege a series of attempts to achieve Bazin's ideal and redress Gorky's disappointment. Pioneering processes such as Smith and Urban's Kinemacolor, Gaumont's Chrono-chrome, Prizmacolor and the early two-color versions of Kodachrome and Technicolor would be understood as progressive attempts to bring to the screen the colors of real life. But if Bazin, writing in the 1950's, witnessed the triumph of this indexical color, the silent era seems more notable for the other tradition of color, color which is not due to indexical photographic processes but was manufactured by various processes of more or less arbitrarily applied color, including hand painting, stencil coloring, and various varieties and combinations of tinting and toning. While the two traditions of color in silent cinema I have outlined in practice actually interrelate (with realistic effect sometimes achieved through non-indexical color and fantasy effects possible with photographically achieved color), it would seem that the non-indexical, purely sensual color whose role is less realistic than spectacular and metaphorical is more prevalent during the silent era.

To understand the functions and connotations of this form of color applied primarily for its sensuous, spectacular and metaphorical effects rather than its indexical and realist associations I believe we need to broaden our scope a bit, while maintaining a very definite historical specificity. During the century that lasts approximately from the 1860's to the 1960's, color gradually moves into a series of media that had previously been bereft of color, first the mechanical reproduction of images, then still photography, cinema and finally television. For most of this period, color appeared in these media as an innovation, encroaching on territory dominated by black and white imagery. And, equally important, for a long period color appeared as a minority option, a less frequent - and therefore significant - alternative to the more dominant black and white image. In other words, in the modern era color carries connotations of novelty and appears as a special selection against the background of monochromatic imagery.

Color appears as something superadded to the more dominant form of reproduction, an extra sensual intensity which draws its significance at least in part from its difference from black and white. Color serves as a startling alternative to black and white, evoking a sensual intensity that can overwhelm its realistic and indexical associations even when it appears in color photographic processes,

5.jpg (9352 byte) We do not need a historian or critic to point out the significance of this paradigmatic opposition between color and black and white images. The opposition plays an active role in the works themselves, with the reproduction of color always signifying more than simply the accurate visual representation of the objective world. Let us examine one of the most vivid examples, one which stands almost as a parable of the way color was treated during the classical period of Hollywood Cinema.

In a black and white image an adolescent girl moves slowly towards the camera. Cautious and wide-eyed, she nearly brushes against the camera, her image going slightly out of focus. In the next shot a basically monochromic image appears, a coppery sepia, as the girl enters the frame and moves towards a door, her previously white blouse now copper colored, matching the dominant tone of the image. As she opens the door, the monochromatic schema gives way as an enframed view in bright colors - reds, blues and greens - appears through the open doorway. The figure steps aside for a moment to avoid blocking the view, and then enters into the frame and passes through the door, her blouse once more gleaming white, her dress light blue. In reverse angle the girl stands outside the doorway, her now fleshtoned face beaming with wonder. A rising and spiralling crane shot moves away from the girl to encircle a brightly colored set of gargantuan flowering plants and trees, a bright blue stream snaking through, blue mountains visible in the distance, a spiral shaped gold-orange pathway coming into view. At the end of this crane shot the camera rediscovers the girl, now from high above her. A cut to an eye-level long shot frames her within this colorful artificial landscape, as she looks around in amazement and states, "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

This sequence from MGM's The Wizard of Oz demonstrates several of the points I want to make about color in motion pictures before the 1950's. First, the film's structure not only acknowledges color's paradigmatic opposition to black and white imagery, (and even, through art direction and lighting, transforms it into a gradual and significant transition during the first shot in Technicolor), but emphasizes it by making it thematic. Color signifies difference itself, here the sudden transposition to an alien world. Further, as has frequently been pointed out, color in this film signifies not an added dimension of familiarity and realism, a more accurate representation of our chromatic visual world, but a sensual intensity, a realm of artificiality and fantasy. The route "somewhere over the rainbow" charts a course right through the spectrum, trailing hues of glory. Color signifies a lifting of the image out of the literal and opens a royal (yellow brick) road towards metaphor.

This metaphorical role for color depends on a recognition of color's substitution for the more common choice of black and white. As soon as color became a majority option, as frequent or more frequent than black and white, it lost much of its metaphorical valency. While the use of color in an era dominated by black and white does not necessarily function as a metaphor, its less familiar nature, like a turn of speech, endows it with a metaphoric potential.

A modern World of Colorful Attractions

Before I discuss the specific uses of this metaphoric power in silent film, I want to stress that this opposition of color and black and white was not restricted to cinema. As indicated earlier, from the 1860's on the United States experienced an invasion of color into all areas of daily life. I would claim that this surge of color into previously monochrome territories constitutes one of the key perceptual transformations of modernity. The discourse which surrounds it, particularly the opposition it encountered, reveals that the proliferation of color along with the rise of mechanical reproduction strongly threatened elite conceptions of taste and the unique aura of art.

Let me return to Dorothy Gale's voyage to the Land of Oz. Expressing this voyage into a fantasy realm through a switch to color imagery may seem a natural choice in an industry that for a decade had been exploring ways to promote the attraction of color while maintaining its value as a narrative device. (3) As ingenious as this choice may be, its inspiration most likely came from the original novel by L. Frank Baum. While the gray and monochromatic Kansas of the film's opening seems merely a natural result of the dominant form of film stock in 1939, it actually formed a thematic opposition in Baum's prose when the book was published in 1900.

In the first chapter, Baum, (who had traveled West in the 1880's to open a modern variety store in South Dakota, a venture that ended in bankruptcy) describes the Great American Prairie as a desert devoid of color which saps its inhabitants of the vitality that color signifies: "When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but a great gray prairie on every side... The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else. When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips and they were gray also." (4)

Even more strikingly, the book as originally published in 1900 carried this color scheme into its overall design. Besides the full color illustrations included as plates on glossy paper, Baum and his illustrator W. W. Denslow, interwove color illustration into the text itself. The opening chapter set in Kansas is printed in a dull sepia, while the chapter that deposits Dorothy in the Land of the Munchkins, is immediately emblazoned in green. Subsequent chapters change colors, reflecting either dominant colors in the narrative (red for the field of sleep-inducing poppies), or keyed to the land Dorothy and her companions are visiting (Green for Oz, Yellow for the land of the Winkies, and red for the land of the Quadlings).

Baum's interest in color indicates more than an author with deep insight into the visual imagination of children. Between his business failure in South Dakota and his fame as a writer of children's book, Baum had become known as the first theorist of a new form of visual culture, the window display. In 1897 Baum founded and edited The Show Window, the first trade journal for the art of display windows and in the next year founded the National Association of Window Trimmers. (5) Baum's sense of the power of color to invoke fantasy derives from a new commercial culture emerging at the turn of the century, founded on the desire to influence a mass market of consumers through visual attractions.

A new conception of advertising had emerged with this mass consumer culture, and color played a key role in its redefinition. Artemas Ward, a pioneer in advertising theory, declared that color "creates desire for the goods displayed," since "it spoke the universal picture language" understandable by "foreigners, children, people in every station of life who can see or read at all." (6) I think it is no coincidence that Ward's description of those most susceptible to color's call corresponds precisely to those groups described in the silent era as the most fervent movie-goers. 6.jpg (5246 byte)

The color invasion which began in the latter part of the nineteenth century encountered surprisingly stiff opposition. In 1874 Edwin Larence Godkin, editor of the prestigious cultural and political journal The Nation used the term "chromo-civilization" to describe the collapse of values in modernizing American culture. Although Godkin's editorial referred to a case of adultery and scandal involving one of America's most famous clergymen, his term of opprobrium for this new civilization of false values and cheap morals came from the innovation in printing technology that had brought color reproductions to nearly every parlor in the nation: chromolithography. (7) This new medium's most visible entrepreneur, Louis Prang, felt that his business made the blessings of civilization affordable, and that color could now brighten homes across the nation. (8)

This proliferation of color reproductions drew criticism based on two interrelated assumptions about the mechanical reproduction of color. The first claimed that the colors in chromolithographic reproductions of famous painting were inaccurate. However contested this might be by the lithographers, the critics' argument rested primarily on a second, incontestable point: that chro-molithographs were products of a machine rather than an artist's hand. This argument maintained that artistic color was impossible to achieve mechanically. The Nation declared apodictically: "Good color, that is, delicately graduated color, is not to be produced by the printing press." (9) The cultural elite declared, therefore, that two sorts of color existed: the subtle and delicate color under the control of the artist's hand, and irresponsible, too intense color, mass produced by machines.

In this debate on color, both sides agreed on certain key points about color itself: that color could have a powerful, almost irrational, effect on a mass society. For the theorists of mass marketing and arts dependent on mechanical reproduction, this attraction inherent in color represented a commercial opportunity, while for the guardians of elite culture it represented a peril to civilization. (10) To advocates of popular culture, color represented a royal road to an attention-grabbing visual fascination, an incitement of desire and fantasy and, ultimately consumption. Those threatened by mass culture saw in the proliferation of color an emblem of all their concerns. It is significant that the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, the Columbian Exposition, with its self-proclaimed mission of exemplifying and upholding the best in American culture (embodied in imitation imperial and classical architecture) was known as the "White City," its plaster monuments upholding an ideal of order and rationality. The Columbian Exposition enshrined an imitative neo-classical ideal in architecture, while nearly ignoring the contribution of an authentic American architectural tradition exemplified by Louis Sullivan which was dedicated to technological innovation and stylistic modernity. Interestingly, Sullivan's somewhat marginal contribution to the Fair, the Transportation Building, possessed a brilliant red front, a stark contrast in color and design to the surrounding neo-classicism.(11)

This turn-of-the-century popular culture took many forms and most of them were colorful. New techniques of color printing allowed the introduction of the Sunday color supplement to large city newspaper, a form marked by equal doses of irreverent humor, innovative visual design and bold use of color. (12) The first successful example of the Sunday comics took its name from its dominant color, a brassy yellow for Outcault's The Yellow Kid, a title which some people claim as the source for the term "yellow journalism" applied particularly to the Hearst chain of newspapers which featured the strip. Color pro- vided a key ingredient in the popularity of most comic strips from the turn of the century. An ad for Hearst Sunday Journal has the Yellow Kid himself proclaiming in his slum dialect why people loved the colored Sunday Supplement, "It's a rainbow of color, a dream of beauty, a wild burst of lafter and regular hot stuff." (13) The greatest examples of this new caricature form, such as Windsor McKay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, Lyonel Feininger's Der Kinder Kids or Rudolph Dirk's Katzen jammer Kids burst upon the page with eye-popping color.

Splashes of color also characterized other realms of popular literature which appeared as publishers sighted a broader audience of readers than the subscribers to The Nation. The covers of dime novels and their twentieth century offspring, the pulps, announced the sensational content of their stories with the bold, even semi-pornographic, action filled images and dramatic use of color. (14) The strong association between the realm of popular entertainments and literature and color increased elite con- cern that the emerging commercial culture addressed the senses and the emotions rather than rational and orderly modes of behavior. Color helped fashion a culture of sensationalism, based in sensual and emotional intensity and dedicated to inciting desire rather than orderly behavior As indicated earlier, color in advertising became a central preoccupation in both the theory and practice of attracting customers. This embrace of color as a inducement to spending employed a range of media. The advertising department for the Santa Fe Railway, interested in promoting its route through the Southwestern United States as a tourist itinerary, "used the language of color aggressively and imaginatively," (15) utilizing not only mass reproduced posters and calendars displaying the landscapes and images of Native American life of the Southwest, but also colored lantern slides, whose brightly contrasting colors evoked the exoticism of this tourist mecca. Such bold uses of color drew criticisms that recall Godkin's attack on chromolithographs, as lacking a "clear understanding of the principles of harmonious coloring, of the gradation of colors as seen in natural objects, and in the exercise of restraint and common sense." (16)

Color appeared not only as a means of drawing attention to advertisements themselves but also as a way of endowing consumer goods with an indefinable surplus to their use value. In the 1920's color transformed such industrial products as bathroom towels or automobiles "from utilitarian products into fashion goods,"(17) replacing the previous whites or blacks with a variety of hues. By the twenties, then, color, like the movies, no longer need carry the taint of low brow sensationalism. Coordinated color became a signifier of a sophisticated sensuality, as middle class culture liberated itself from an earlier pleasure denying puritanism. The 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco abandoned the dazzling white that so many large U.S Expositions had inherited from the Columbian Exposition's White City, and introduced a coordinated color scheme under the direction of colorist Jules Guerin, who declared: "On every hand ... color - that is the magic quality our public have missed so long. For color, like music, is the language of the emotions." (18) This color dominated fair with its central tower of jewels may have seemed like a realization of Baum's Oz.

This gradual (and limited) acceptance of color represents a mutual accommodation between commercial popular culture and official culture. On the one hand color was tamed by color experts who strove to eliminate the jarring juxtapositions and too bright hues which then became restricted to lower class imagery such as the pulps and the circus poster. On the other hand middle class culture accepted an increased sensuality as an acceptable part of the modern daily environment, fashioning from it a sign of status and the foundation of a new consumer culture. This accommodation of color resembles the transformation of film style and exhibition which combined with a new cultural tolerance for non-pragmatic entertainment to forge the basis of the Classical Hollywood Cinema in the late teens and twenties. However, like the cinema, the color may have become omnipresent, but still had the ability to disturb cultural hierarchies through its association with the emotional and sensual rather than the rational and ideal.

The Language of Color in Early Silent Film

In their first decades, motion pictures excited the same sort of criticism which greeted chromolithography a few decades earlier, Movies also exerted a strange visual appeal, drawing in children, immigrants and the uneducated masses while scorned by the cultural elite. Film was an art of mechanical reproduction, as well, incapable of expressing the finer values of civilization. As such it stood in need of special supervision and was often condemned as deleterious to civilization.

The original motivation for the addition of color to motion pictures appears to have been realism. Viewers of some of the first exhibitions experienced the lack of color as lack of realism, and the first exhibition of films on the Vitascope included several hand-colored films, indicating Edison's concern about this missing element. While it does not seem that the Lumière projections included such superadded color, it is important to recall that the Lumière researches into color photography coincided with the development of the cinématographe,

But if the initial concern with color relates us to the ideals of realism and accurate reproduction of the visual world inherent in Bazin's notion of "the myth of total cinema," the actual use of color during cinema's first two decades relates more closely to the color theories of the entrepreneurs of commercial popular culture. First of all, color in early silent film exemplifies the principles of color in film I derived from my discussion of The Wizard of Oz. Color existed in opposition to black and white. In fact, with most manufacturers of color films, films made exclusively in color did not exist. Specific films could be purchased in either black and white or in color - color, costing more.

7.jpg (14625 byte) Color existed as a choice not only for the maker but for the exhibitor, a more expensive choice, indicating added value and greater attraction. Just as clearly, color appeared as a superadded feature, an additional sensual attraction literally superimposed over the original black and white images. I would claim that the perceived addition of color to a black and white image contributed less to realism than to sensual intensity (although in this period the two qualities are not theoretically separated). The attraction of this added intensity opened the potential for color to be used as a signifier of fantasy, or as a metaphor.

Although more research needs to be carried out, it seems from a survey of surviving prints from before 1908, that films associated with fantasy, such as Méliès or Pathé's féeries and trick films, were most frequently offered in color versions. Along with fantasy, color appeared in films with exotic or spectacular themes. In the Biograph Bulletins from 1908, the only films explicitly advertised as available in versions with "tinting" are the Japanese drama The Heart of 0 Yama, the story of ancient Rome The Barbarian Ingomar and the outdoor dramas The Girl and the Outlaw and A Woman's Way. (19) Even the surviving tinting from the earliest period of exhibition, Edison's films of Annabelle's skirt dance, use color in a spectacular rather than realistic manner, with the changing tints on Annabelle's billowing dress undoubtedly intended to convey the effect of colored lights common in dances of the Loie Fuller genre, Films intended primarily to display color as an attraction in itself appear in the Pathé output, such as La Ruche merveilleuse whose main action consists in women in butterfly costumes standing before the camera and spreading wings beautifully endowed with a variety of stencil tints. Further, color was used non-continuously within many early films. Pathé's Un Tour de monde policier from 1906, for instance, includes shots in black and white, shots which have been tinted a single color, and an emblematic final shot which is stenciled in multiple colors. This variety of colors options matched the general style of this film, which intercuts staged scenes with actuality footage taken around the world. The final shot shows especially well the spectacular nature of silent film color. As stencil coloring it is arguably the most realistic of the film's uses of color, adhering color to objects and characters in a referential fashion. This final scene, however, occurs somewhat outside the fiction, imaging a summary apotheosis after the story has been completed, rather than an actual narrative action. The film's two antagonists, now reconciled, shake hands before a huge globe as a procession of supernumeraries garbed in colorful national costumes parade past the camera. Here color functions primarily as a visual exclamation point, stressing the exotic spectacle of this finale, embellishing the unfamilar dress styles and emblematically stressing the different nations of each group as if flourishing their national colors.

Even film exhibitors who could not afford the added expense of a color rather than a black and white print of a film could include a colorful act within their program. During the era of the nickelodeon, in the U.S. nearly every theater presented "illustrated songs" along with projected films. This novelty act consisted of a song performed by a live singer while stereopticon slides specially photographed to illustrate the songs lyrics were projected on the screen. These "song slides" were colored with bright and often fantastic colors, reflecting the scenarios of desire and wish fulfillment enacted in the songs, Therefore, few film shows in this early period lacked color entirely.

As I indicated at the beginning of this talk, the addition of color to these films in the silent era did not suffer from their lack of naturalism. Rather, the arbitrary and unnatural uses of color, more intense than reality, allowed color to be experienced as a power in itself, rather than simply a secondary quality of objects. Even the slightly uneven fit between color and object in hand painting and stencil coloring, so that the colors seem to lift themselves off the surface of reality and quiver in a scintillating dance, has the effect of underscoring the independent power of color, even if unintentionally. In any case, the intense hues and sharp juxtaposition of these colors place them in the tradition of emotionally effective and possibly "dangerous" colors so bewailed by the guardians of genteel culture. They function as attention-grabbing attractions and incitements to fantasy, rather than harmonious and subtle appeals to an established aesthetic order, or carefully observed images of nature.

Perhaps it is important to modify this point by observing that in most cases color in silent film did possess realistic motivation, even if it lacked truly realistic effects. And indeed a thorough treatment of color in cinema in any era would need to analyze the delicate pas de deux orchestrated between realistic motives and metaphorical or spectacular effects. A blue tint for night scenes, for instance, constitutes the most common use of tinting in silent cinema. While these shimmering sapphire nights possess a mystery that actual night photography lacks, at least for this viewer, they certainly functioned primarily as a convention and most likely were more frequently simply accepted by viewers as a signifier for night than experienced as an intense saturation of an image with color.

This granted, I would maintain that tinting (the dyeing of a shot with a single over-all color) especially demonstrates the metaphoric power of silent cinema, because even when realistically motivated, the singularity of color can seem to dominate the screen in a way that multiple colors rarely do. Viewers of tinted prints of Griffith's Intolerance undoubtedly experience the red tinted images of the siege of Babylon at night not simply as an attempt to convey the fires of destruction, but as a sensual metaphor for blood, anger and the fury of Mars, the God of War.

The most fascinating example of this effect of tinting I have seen comes from one of the few surviving tinted prints of a Griffith Biograph film, the print of The Lonedale Operator held by the Nederlands Filmmuseum. Viewers of this tinted print notice immediately how the realistically motivated tinting of a key scene renders a narrative point crystal clear which remains obscure in a black and white print. The resourceful female telegraph operator of this film protects the payroll entrusted to her by holding a pair of thieves at bay with a small monkey wrench which they take for a pistol. This key plot device is rendered more believable by the fact that the operator turns off the lamp in her office, so that the scene take place in darkness. Only a tinted print really conveys the darkness which fills the room as the lamp is extinguished, as the tinting in the shot changes from yellowish amber to blue.

If this detail shows that tinting can function realistically and perform key narrative functions, the full extent of this sequence demonstrates the purely formal effect of tinting. The sequence of the attempted robbery stands as one of Griffith's best known examples of a rush to the rescue conveyed through parallel editing, cutting between the office besieged by the thieves and the operator's engineer lover rushing to her rescue on his locomotive. This cutting pattern is underscored by the switches between different tints. The blue of the office and the red of the locomotive remain realistically motivated (the red of the engine scenes presumably conveying the glow of the coal burner). But the alternation of red and blue in rapid rhythm also accomplishes a pure sensual interplay of color. The alternation in color directs attention to the formal properties of the editing, the brevity of the shots and their rapid alternation. The replacement of one color by another creates a pure physiological excitement which equals (and supplements) the narrative suspense.

While the recent rediscovery of the role color played in silent film has opened up a whole new dimension to films we thought were familiar, the excitement of this reorientation should not blind us to the unique effect color had in these films. More research is needed to discover how prevalent color was in later silent films. While it may be true that most features in the teens and twenties were released in color versions (tinted and/or toned), it remains to be established if the majority of prints exhibited were in color. Even if we do discover that by the late teens color became a majority option in films, the nature of this color still appears as a superadded element against the background of black and white. Many films tinted only a few scenes (night scenes or spectacular scenes). Likewise, in stencil or hand-colored films as a rule certain areas are left uncolored, specially faces, acknowledging color's role in highlighting elements and the limits of its realistic effects (fleshtones being too difficult to replicate). In silent cinema, then, even as color becomes more common, it never plays the role it does in cinema or television today, a simple familiar property of objects in real world whose absence would be more noticeable than its presence.

Color in silent film, then, underscored the modern and popular nature of this new medium, its sensationalism which directly addressed the emotions and the senses of the audience with an intensity other modes of narration and information could hardly equal. But in accomplishing this it showed its kinship with a general revolution in new mechanically reproduced popular art forms. And it unleashed color in a manner which, while it may not have ignored color's realistic connotation, also explored its purely sensual and sensational effects.

Return to Fotogenia n. 1

Archivio Storico:- ex Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - Universita' di Bologna